Dr. Douglas Estes, Lead Pastor, Trinity Church (Mesa, AZ)

My interview with Dr. Douglas Estes, Lead Pastor of Trinity Church in Mesa, AZ, continued from here.

#5 A PhD needs to accept that he or she will be discriminated against.

I hate to say it, but when you are a (unfamous) pastor with a PhD, you’re going to be prejudiced against. Not to get off track from this post, but I’ve been told a lot of not-nice things over the years about my wearing two hats. I’d love to tell you that it was elitist academics who have been the most discouraging, but that would not be true (in my case). 70/30, most of the prejudice has been in the pastoral, not academic, world. The good news here is that 90% of the prejudiced comments have been from other pastors, not from ‘regular folks’ in the pew (unless they are on a hiring team, but if the hiring team is already talking to you 50/50 they have already ‘gotten over’ the fact that you have a PhD). If you’re going to be a pastor, you might as well know that now, because the job is so difficult when done right, most pastors struggle with insecurity. Badly. But before I let academics off the hook, yes, be prepared for some academics (and editors of journals and books) to tell you that if you don’t have “Prof” coming after your name, your chances are more limited. (In that situation, I have to say more are not being snide, just reflecting their reality; I always smile and tell them I’ll give it my best shot anyway).

#6 A PhD needs to realize churches don’t want to hire someone who is “settling.” This is true of any job, anywhere, but especially one with professional expectations such as a pastor (or professor). Oh, and by the way, when a PhD lies to a church board and says, “Yes, I did always want to be a pastor,” they hurt all the other PhDs coming up who really did. So, just don’t. Better to be honest and say something like, “When I was younger, I did want to be a professor, but with everything that has gone on in my life the last few year, I’ve come to the very personal conviction that my calling may be changing from academics to pastoral ministry. I’m excited by the possibility, and I hope you are too.” But only if you mean it.

#7 A PhD will need to work harder than a non-PhD.

Sorry, but it’s true. Once you get those letters after your name, there’s an albatross around your neck. Admit it. Own it. It’ll be hard—I can testify. But throwing a hissy fit from your frustrated expectations is not going to get you anywhere. Be confident in your calling (see #1).

I’m sure commenters below will cite exceptions to these, and they do exist. But if so, PhDs need to make sure both they and the church are exceptions.

To your last question, I’m a little pessimistic about whether a PhD can be hired into pastoral ministry and come to love it over time. I’m sure it happens, and perhaps one of your other interviewees will come from that perspective (and I’d love to hear it). But to me this is the exception rather than the rule. I just know too many academically-oriented people who neither teach nor pastor, and they are, quite sadly, usually very bitter. This is probably true of most people who desired a profession but for whom it didn’t work out. Having said that, I think it is more likely to be the other way around: That a professor, as they mature in their career, may come to love the local church more, and be more involved. This scenario is much more likely.

What has your education done to change the way you imagine educating a local church?

Since my education has been a long progression (BS, to MDiv, to ThM, to PhD, to PostDoc), it’s hard to point solely to one program, like the PhD. But if we just take the post-MDiv educational experiences, I think the biggest change has been to realize you’re not ever going to ‘get there.’ The educational and spiritual formation of people in pastoral ministry is a lifelong process. Be strategic, for sure, but there is no end. And past topics need to be continually reminded and refreshed.

Whenever someone hears me teach in a church context, and knows my academic background, the first comment/question is always: “How is it possible that you teach so simply?” They ask this because they assume my church teaching times will be academic, or advanced, when in reality, I often aim for a ‘8th grade listening level.’ The reason for this is that I believe most anything worth teaching should be able to be explained to a middle-schooler (not all the details, of course, but the principles, certainly). 

The Temporal Mechanics of the Fourth Gospel from Brill Academic Publishers, Estes’ first monograph on the Gospel of John.

Many people who are open to doing pastoral ministry are concerned that the vocation has morphed in the United States to the point where it is all about raising funds for a new building, counseling married couples with rebellious teenagers, and quickly writing a sermon in their spare time. What have you done to make sure that as a pastor you have time to write and study, to stay engaged in academia, and to make sure that your role as pastor doesn’t prevent you from doing the these things?

Well, Brian, my first reaction to those ‘many people’ would be that they have a very romanticized view of pastoral ministry, and not one based in reality (ever, if Paul’s writings are any indication). Using one of your examples, raising funds for a new building has always been a part of pastoral ministry—cathedrals (as existed for most of church history) were never cheap to build, and even Paul arranged for the transport of money (1 Cor 16:4). And pastors in other parts of the world/throughout history have to counsel married couples and their little angels, too. I am concerned about this romanticized view, because I think unrealistic expectations lead to unhappy pastors in unhappy churches (this is true of any new pastor). So I cannot strongly enough urge any PhD-to-pastor to understand and accept what real-world pastoring really is—and flush any romanticized versions they may have, for the sake of their new church, their family, and their own personal emotional health. Having said that, there is no doubt that pastoral ministry is more ‘professional-business-like’ than it has been in past centuries. But it still doesn’t change the fact that no PhD is going to get a church where they can spend an inordinate amount of time in personal study (excepting a theologian-in-residence or similar, and are those jobs few!).

As far as your pastor role preventing you from engaging in academia, there are three factors. First, a PhD has to keep in mind their primary job is pastoral ministry. Second, it really helps to have a church who appreciates your academic side (I’ve been blessed with that in my last two pastoral roles; but quite a few churches I have interviewed with over the years has told me that for me to get the job, “you can’t write any more books.” Unless you’re starving (and called!), don’t take those kinds of jobs). Third, you need to develop excellent boundaries. You need to do this anyway, for your interpersonal relationships, but establishing good boundaries with your church is critical. You will always have exceptions, but they too can be managed if you have clear expectations worked out with your church. A healthy church will understand and care enough about you to work with you (if you’re called to an unhealthy church, that’s another issue for another post).

If you were preparing to put together a pastoral staff would you desire to hire someone else who has done doctoral work to function as an associate pastor or director of education or do you think someone with administrative experience is more valuable?

Because my church already has a PhD (me), having another pastor with a PhD would be neither a plus or minus (unless the church became so large that it would possibly make sense as a desirable skill set). For me, I would evaluate the individual’s ministry experience and giftedness for the particular role. Also, balance is good: My first planned hire at Trinity is our new Executive Pastor, an exceptional leader/coach/people catalyst who happens to have very little formal theological training at this point in his life (though extremely well read). To me this provides a good blend for the top pastoral leadership of our church (a regular guy plus a smarty-pants).

I would have no reason to discriminate against a PhD for a staff position, but being one myself, and knowing some built-in strengths and weaknesses, the interview with me would probably be more pointed than one for an average church search team!

Finally, if there is one thing you could say is necessary for a church to incorporate into their “philosophy of education” what would it be?

This is a little difficult to answer, because I know Near Emmaus’ readership is pretty broad. I can only speak to those who share similar church values to myself. But my view of the one necessary thing is to correctly and accurately handle the Scriptures, with humility and the recognition that no one will ever fully ‘get it’ before they pass on from this world. I’m not saying there are not clear standards for orthodoxy (quite clearly there are), but that the working out, explaining, understanding, internalizing and dialoging with others requires a flexible mind and a loving heart.


If you enjoyed this interview you may enjoy the short series done by our former contributor Robert Jimenez titled, “The Blogging Pastor” where he interview the following people:

Mark Stevens
Dr. Jim West
Brian Fulthorp